Monday, September 24, 2018

INDIAN MUSLIMS: DIFFERING VIEWS

It is the irony of ironies that (a) the Government of India banned triple talaq without getting a proper bill properly passed in Parliament, and (b) Muslims attacked the "reform" saying that it will not help Muslim women. Who said anything about helping Muslim women? The new law is merely an election-eve move even though its vote-catching potential is doubtful.

Whether it is the Muslim personal law, or the newfangled register of citizens, or the convoluted votebank politics of the northeast, there is an all-out effort to mobilise votes on communal basis. Not even the Amit Shah camp will be in a position to say with certainty whether this is tactic that will work in practice. But that doesn't hold back verbal terrorists and hate merchants.

When Kamal Hassan joined those who condemned "Hindu terrorism", tons of bricks were hurled at him. Attackers argued that it was impossible for a Hindu to be a terrorist. That is true of Hinduism. Modern-day Hindutva is different as any lynch victim would testify. All religions have a terrorist streak in them. Buddhism is a byword for non-violence, but Thai Buddhists called for the killing of communists at one stage and Myanmar Buddhists have been killing masses of Rohingyas. Christianity swears by love, but Roman Catholicism presided over the unspeakable cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition.

Perhaps Indian Muslims attract special attention because their story is related to the religion-based partition of India. Ironically Muslims in India are perceived to be better off with citizens' rights than Muslims in Pakistan, a point that adds to the disaffection between the neighbours.

A belated reading of a 2016 book brings home the fact that Indian Muslims face problems that could be partly self-imposed and partly imposed by intolerant government leaders. Indian Muslims: Struggling for Equality of Citizenship presents its basic premise in the title itself. It is edited by Riaz Hassan, director of the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia, and has contributions by experts such as Amitabh Kundu (Delhi Policy Group), Rajinder Sachar (former Chief Justice of India) and Rakesh Basant (IIM, Ahmedabad).

Christopher Jaffrelot, the acclaimed India specialist with several definitive studies to his credit, has provided a chapter with a blunt heading: "The Muslims of Gujarat during Narendra Modi's chief ministership". His basic thesis is that Gujarati asmita (sense of identity) "is rooted in Hinduism and directed against Muslims". This was underlined by the promotion of vegetarianism. "This quasi-equation between Gujarati-ness and vegetarianism tends to exclude the Muslim minority from 'Gujaratihood'". Some Bohras, he says, register themselves as Bohras, not Muslims, in census records. He gives details to show that no significant relief has been provided to poor Muslims because they "have explicitly been victims of discrimination". Even scholarships earmarked for Muslims by the central government were not given to them.

The BJP has built enough arguments in political terms to justify its discriminatory practices. In 2009 the party nominated two Muslims for byelections in Junagadh. Both lost. Local BJP leaders said that committed Hindu voters might have turned against the party. In the famous UP elections last year, as in the Gujarat elections in 2012, the BJP denied tickets to Muslims. In both cases, it came out triumphant.Why then should it bother about Muslim representation? Amit Shah has even sidelined Shahnawaz Hussain, the BJP's faithful showpiece Muslim face for long.

Scholars in this book and elsewhere point to the poor educational and health standards of Muslims in India. Amitabh Kundu attributes this to "historical and socio-cultural factors". What are these socio-cultural factors? Is not the ultra-orthodoxy of Muslim leadership itself a socio-cultural factor contributing to Muslim backwardness? Does Madrassa education aim at improving the general standards of students? Has any socio-cultural programme been launched by the community for the benefit of impecunious Muslims in, say, UP-Bihar?

Such questions become relevant when we look at the contrast between Muslims of the northern states and their brethren in the south.The latter are better integrated with, and accepted by the general population. Kerala Muslims, for example, hold leadership positions as writers, doctors, educationists, politicians and public intellectuals. Ultra-orthodox elements exist there too: There is still no trace of Chekannur Maulavi, a progressive cleric, who disappeared in 1993. But they are exceptions, numerically minuscule and remain hidden. Overall, educational standards have been high for Muslims in the south and they are better off for that. Perhaps Islamic leaders need to look inward, too, when they complain about Muslims being neglected in India.

Monday, September 17, 2018

WHERE IS VIVEKANANDA'S INDIA?



Here is the noblest summing up of civilisational values by an Indian:

I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth... Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations into despair.... The present convention is in itself a vindication of the wonderful doctrine presented in the Gita: 'Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him. All men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me'. - Vivekananda.

Here are the most despicable understanding of values that Indians can possibly have:

Please donate to help Kerala Hindus. The Christians and Muslims worldwide raising lots of money to help mainly their own people and agenda. - Rajiv Malhotra (USA). Floods in Kerala are due to tantric and mantric worship. Tsunami was God's wrath in India for idol worship. - Evangelist Lazarus Mohan (Tamil Nadu).

In a way it is abhorrent to mention in the same breath the names of Vivekananda, the swami of enlightenment, and latterday peddlers of religious hatred. Chicago where Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions was picked as the venue for the World Hindu Congress recently. But Chicago heard this time a different voice that called for a sectarian war lest "the lone lion is destroyed by wild dogs". This lone lion must be a new contraption because Hinduism can never be destroyed, not even by those who are misusing it from within.

Vivekananda's short address in Chicago is still remembered, 125 years later, as a historic marker in the march of ideas. At the assembled "parliament" of spiritual leaders from all corners of the world, Vivekananda stood out as a majestic figure -- a 30-year-old in saffron robe with a maharaja-like turban. His opening words, "My sisters and brothers of America", led to an applause that made the speaker pause for a while. The message of brotherhood and universal tolerance he conveyed in the next few minutes made him the star of Chicago. It was the first time the West heard a credible Indian voice from India and it helped demolish the British-projected view of a benighted India lost in primitive superstitions.

Vivekananda's India, too, appears to be lost. These are days when, for every genuine holy man, there are a dozen fakes. Some flourish with ashrams spread across vast acreages. Some start business empires that conquer everything it sets its sights on. Some are in jail. The religious exploiters come in many robes. Madrasas are rife with scandals of child abuse while convents are exploding with charges of nuns being used for the pleasure of priests. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the church in India, nuns have come out in the open protesting against the sexual escapades of a bishop. Under our prevailing criminal law, a formal charge by a woman is enough to take the accused into custody for interrogation. But this bishop has proved to be special. Forces stronger than God are protecting him.

When Vivekananda said "I am proud to be a Hindu", he must have had in mind the Hinduism that respected all. The greatness of Hinduism -- and the uniqueness of it -- is that you can reject all the gods in the Hindu pantheon and still be a Hindu. But the corollary is that you can worship all the gods in the pantheon and still be not a Hindu. The politicians who divide people on religious grounds are not helping their religion. They are just exploiters.

A saint who said "we accept all religions as true" is being appropriated by a party that suppresses minorities for political gains. Vivekananda was an original liberal. He promoted the cause of modern education and modern science. The casteism in Kerala provoked him to describe that state as a lunatic asylum. How would he describe the states where people lynch people in the name of religion? How would he describe Raja Singh Lodh, BJP MLA in Telengana, who said "till the cow is accorded the status of Rashtra Mata, killings for gau raksha will continue?" Swami Vivekananda was blessed that he lived in another, civilised, India.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A COUP THAT AWAITS THE DARING


There is a strategic political coup that Rahul Gandhi can execute, and thereby transform the entire landscape of the 2019 election. Routine politicking won't do in the present climate because Narendra Modi's oratorical ability to attract mass attention is unrivalled and his party has the advantage of being in power. It will be foolish to see 2019 as a Modi versus Rahul test. The Congress should understand this unusual situation and take unusual steps to meet the challenge.

Rahul can swing everything in his favour with a bit of daring, and a bit of the long view. The first step is to know that he cannot just shrug off the combined handicap of inexperience in government, relative youth and the dynasty tag. Modi makes fun of these by using nicknames like Shazada and Pappu. To imagine that this drawback can be overcome with fiery speeches, a foreign visit or two and modern marketing technology would be to succumb to the temptations of power. Pressures to commit this mistake must be resisted with daring.

The long view is needed to realise that he has nothing to lose by waiting. Time is on his side. If he remains Congress President but formally withdraws from the perceived prime-minister-to-be position, it will be a boost to the opposition among whom there are leaders sceptical of his lack of exposure to public office. The acceptability level of the Congress will increase simultaneously, making opposition unity easier to attain. The Congress will remain a major component of the opposition alliance entitled to all the benefits of a victor in case the alliance wins a majority in the election.

What if the Congress wins enough seats on its own to become a legitimate claimant for prime ministership? The shrewdest move Rahul Gandhi can make in such a situation is to put up another Congress leader for the top post and himself become a cabinet minister intent on gaining administrative experience. That will raise his political stock sky high. Indira Gandhi was a minister in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet and she was the better administrator for that (although she didn't like it at the time). By contrast, Chandrasekhar was a member of Parliament for many years, active as a Young Turk. But he became Prime Minister straightaway in November 1990 without any administrative experience in any branch of government. The result was that he became something of an Old Turk as prime minister and lasted only seven months after which he withered away.

Rahul Gandhi can kill two birds with one stone. While withdrawal from the prime ministerial race will crown him with a halo of wisdom, the presence of Congressmen with unimpeachable prime ministerial quality will strengthen the standing of his party in any alliance. Choosing the right one is a problem a party president with Rahul Gandhi's clout can easily solve.

To cite two examples, P. Chidambaram is unofficially mentioned as a potential prime minister. But he could well be a disaster. For one thing, "whispers" about his PM qualities were contrived as far back as in 2012 when "overseas media" including such weighty titles as The Economist carried the whispers. The Congress even ordered an internal inquiry about it. A more important factor against him is that his name is linked rightly or wrongly with corruption cases, his son contributing to that negative asset. Chidambaram is capable, educated and modernistic, but he is unpopular. His image is his enemy.

Mallikarjun Kharge, on the other hand, is a dream candidate for prime ministership. One of the most experienced politicians in public life today, he has handled ministerial portfolios for more than 40 years, in his state and at the Centre. The portfolios have included, education, panchayat raj, industries, revenue, transport and home. The crowning glory is that he has handled all these without attracting corruption scandals. This must be a unique record.

Kharge has a couple of other qualifications that are important in India's convoluted politics. He is from the south who speaks Hindi like a native. His role as the virtual Leader of the Opposition in Parliament has evoked the reluctant admiration of even the ruling party. Additionally, he is from the Scheduled Caste, though he never plays the caste card. A Congress Party that puts up Mallikarjun Kharge as its prime ministerial candidate, with Rahul Gandhi confidently waiting in the background, will be a formidable force in 2019. The only question is whether Rahul will have the daring and the long view to grab the opportunity.

Monday, September 3, 2018

WHEN AG IS WORRIED, IT'S SERIOUS


The attorney general is the first law officer of the Government of India and acts as the top advocate for the union government. When such an officer criticises governments in power, it points to an extraordinary situation. When the attorney general happens to be K.K.Venugopal and the governments happen to be run by the BJP, it is as good as a crisis situation because Venugopal has often been on the BJP's side, from the Babri Masjid case to B.S.Yeddyurappa's farcical bid to form a government in Karnataka earlier this year.

Venugopal's judicial sensibilities must have been rattled for him to use the strong words he did in the Supreme Court recently. "There is an incident of major rioting every week even by educated groups", he said. He criticised the BJP governments in Maharashtra and Rajasthan for not taking measures against perpetrators of violence. He criticised the Delhi police for not acting against the frenzied "Kanwariyas" who are supposed to be devotees on pilgrimage but who take easily to assault as they proceed. He pointed to those who threatened to cut off Deepika Padukone's nose for her portrayal of Padmavati. "No civilised country will tolerate this kind of behaviour, but what has been done to the person who made that threat?" the eminent lawyer asked.

"What is to be done?" asked Chief Justice Dipak Misra. Venugopal's ready response was: "Fix responsibility on someone. Once responsibility is fixed on the SP of each district, the court can haul him up, ask him how many FIRs have been filed".

That was a lawyer putting too much faith in law. In today's India things do not happen like that. Which SP will dare ignore the wishes of his political overlords? This does not depend on which party is in power. The BJP may be doing things a bit more brazenly, but all parties have contributed to the situation where the civil service and the police act as supporting agents of those in power. Almost every day incidents occur to drive this point home. In a UP town the other day a truck collided with a vehicle carrying Kanwariyas. The angry pilgrims set the truck on fire, blocked the highway, and beat up the driver. The police arrested the driver. Elsewhere in UP videos showed young devotees hitting a car on the highway with long lathis, hitting it again and again from different angles. Policemen calmly stood around trying to keep spectators out of harm's way.

To what extent can we blame the police for not acting as they ought to? The prevailing political atmosphere allows one type of mobs to think that the law will not touch them. There are enough ministers and MLAs making statements that encourage such elements. The latest was Gyan Ahuja, a Rajasthan MLA belonging to the BJP, who said point-blank: "If one engages in cow smuggling or slaughters a cow, he will be killed".


This is where the jurisdiction of law ends and the overweening power of hatred takes over. Those who have a constitutional duty to check threats and violence prefers to look the other way. The Union Home Minister has taken the position that hate crimes are a state subject and the Centre cannot interfere. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha used the same rhetoric to disallow a private members' bill against lynching. This is a cop out that will convince nobody. The bulk of lynchings have occurred in BJP-ruled states. It is also a fact that lynchings have ruined India's image in the world. Certainly the Union Government has a responsibility to be concerned about the country's image? So it should be easy for karyavahaks in the centre to sit down with karyavahaks in the states and save the country's reputation from anti-nationalists' propaganda. Why don't they do it? The answer is floating quite visibly in the wind.

K.T.S. Tulsi, legal luminary and co-sponsor of the private member's bill on lynching, hit the right note when he said a special law was needed to deal with lynching because "lynching is a crime without motive. The victims are unknown. The objective of the crimes is to strike terror in society"

Obviously there are some who want to strike terror in society. Just as obviously there are some others who want to let them do so. Hence the two-third rise in mob killings since the Dadri horror of September 2015. K.K.Venugopal would know that the solution he suggests may at best cut off the branches. Who will cut off the roots?





Monday, August 27, 2018

THE BEST AND THE WORST ON SHOW


How many will learn how many lessons from the floods that devastated Kerala and Kodagu? The most important lesson is bound to go unlearned -- that, ultimately, these were again examples of Nature collapsing under the impact of human greed. We were warned of it five years ago when cloudbursts and landslides turned Uttarakhand upside down, killing nearly 6000 people. It was adjudged a man-made disaster with hydroelectric dams, illegal mining and construction activities upsetting Nature's balance.

The same greed-driven factors have been threatening most of the Western Ghats as Madhav Gadgil warned seven years ago. Land exploitation and illegal quarrying had reached dangerous levels. But the profiteers behind such exploitation always get support from government leaders and political parties. So the Gadgil Report was subverted. Gadgil has pointed to the Kerala disaster and warned that Goa would be next. To see what he means, we only have to take a drive along certain areas of interior Goa that have been turned by mining companies into gaping holes in the earth. The miners and their political friends earned Rs 35,000 crore in profits as an inquiry commission found.

The story is the same whether it be Kerala, Goa or Kodagu where entire plantations have disappeared in flood fury. Converting paddy fields and forest lands into resorts is an easy way to make money. When the natural movements of water are blocked and when hill slopes are cleared of vegetation, Nature breaks into landslides, debris flows and rock falls. But we refuse to learn lessons as greed dances with corruption.

The depredation that wrecked Kerala threw light on the best and the worst that make up our country. The way the local people rose to the occasion was both inspiring but humbling. Individuals and groups plunged into rescue operations disregarding all political and religious differences. Coastal fishing communities transported 700 boats by lorries to the affected areas and helped move 65,000 people to safe shelters. Social media groups set up online control rooms and call centres manned by hundreds of volunteers. Prisoners in the state's jails prepared food in vast quantities in addition to contributing Rs 12 lakhs from their prison-work wages. The authorities closed the gates of a dam to save a flood-trapped elephant. Four men risked their lives to save a dog that couldn't swim against a strong current. The media did a great job combining responsibility with dedication. The Chief Minister showed timely leadership and instilled confidence in people while coordinating relief activities. He was even courteous to the media. What the world saw was a spontaneous people's movement with the "We shall overcome" theme as a driving force.

This groundswell of voluntary action by a people who refused to be cowed down by catastrophe added weight to the help that rushed in from outside. The armed forces, central teams with special skills, and flood relief experts from Orissa were so brave that the locals took to them as family. The message was: This is a country that citizens can be proud of.

But one sinister streak marred the whole scenario. Discordant notes came from the religious right and, astonishingly, from the Central Government. A Swamy's comment that Kerala was punished for eating beef may be dismissed as the ranting of a mental case. But what about a man from the BJP's IT cell who uploaded an audio clip and text saying that the flood-affected people were mostly from well to do families who therefore deserved no assistance. He still asked for donations, but to a BJP-sponsored platform. There were others who said contributions should not be sent to the Chief Minister's Relief Fund because the money could go to the minorities.

Just as BJP voices went against the public mood, the Central Government took positions that seemed partisan. Was Delhi piqued that its Rs 600-million aid to Kerala was followed by the UAE's Rs 700-million offer? It saved face by announcing that the 600 million was only a preliminary step. It caused outrage when it said that it would charge rice allocations to the state, then saved its face by saying the rice would be free. Its ban on foreign government's contributions marred its face beyond saving. There are rules and precedents that make the ban decision untenable. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is that the Government of India has given the impression that it is inimical towards the Government and people of a state. This is unprecedented and it bodes ill for the future.